Reflection #31 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 31 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #31: With so many presentational aspects of contemporary American worship drawing cues from pop and rock music concerts, lighting can really help or really hurt the cause of corporate worship.

As I have mentioned before, I enjoy introducing significant authors in this blog.  Today’s 71XECQ1nE+L._US230_special find is Tex Sample, a professor emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.  A former student recommended his fascinating The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World to me, and I used it as a text for a while in one of my worship classes.  Subtitled Electronic Culture and the Gathered People of God, the entire book is eye-opening (and, since it was written 20 years ago, prophetic in a Brave New World sort of way), but chapter 3, in particular, “Sound as Beat,” should be required reading for every worship leader where having a healthy respect for the power of sound, especially rhythm, is concerned.

Although Spectacle is primarily focused on all things audio, Sample does have a paragraph on the symbiotic nature of sound and light in performance.  One of his theses is that contemporary worship has become an “electronic spectacle”; he uses this phrase in value-neutral terms, however, and attempts to bring clarity and understanding, not judgment and curmudgeonly condemnation.  The following gives you a good sense of how he approaches his subject matter:

A number of writers . . . note that sound “enters” us in a way that the visual cannot.  I believe this now has shifted so that the percussive character of light now accompanying sound takes on a role and importance it has not had before. . . . Light has come to take on something like the character of sound.  In this connection, compare the place volume and light now have within much popular music, especially in concert.  In electronic spectacles beat “enters” one’s body.  You can actually feel the vibration against your skin, muscle, and bone.  Changes, however, in visualization now provide a parallel result with the visual.  You cannot simply close your eyes and block out the stimulation.  The detonations of light penetrate eyelids and percussively illuminate the arena around you.  Our capacity to shut out the visual, should one want to, has become more limited.

This light augments music and gives it a multi-sensory character of a kind it has not had prior to electronic culture.  A practitioner as sophisticated as Mickey Hart [longtime drummer for the Grateful Dead] says that he is “synesthetic, which means I see sounds and hear images.”

I confess I am not a lighting guy.  I know good (and bad) lighting in worship services when I see it, but I am not the one to give suggestions to the light crew for anything specific.  That said, here are some very general principles that worship leaders might consider re: the lights they use in corporate worship gatherings:

Less is more.  In the same way that lightning-quick changes on the video monitor have the potential to overwhelm the senses (do we really need as many camera angles as the networks use for NFL games to capture the essence of our worship band’s efforts?), so too do rapid light cues.  One general lighting pattern per song should suffice, unless there is a dramatic shift in the feel of the song two-thirds of the way through.  Changing the cues subtly, with slow fades, also helps immensely.

For congregational singing, being able to see fellow parishioners singing aids the corporate worship.  Singing passionately with other believers (and being able to watch them do so) paradoxically promotes two polar experiences.  First, it reinforces that corporate worship is corporate–something the Body of Christ does together, that can’t be done in isolation, that is crucial to our corporate spiritual formation as the Church.  Second, it encourages us in our personal worship, both in that very moment in the midst of the worship set (where so-called vertical and horizontal worship merge) and also in our private worship times outside of the walls of the local church (i.e., our personal spiritual formation).  Hence, leave enough lighting in the house to allow this to happen.  (This also allows astute worship leaders a chance to read congregational response cues, which sometimes can be helpful–although we always need to be careful in making significant assessments based on the outward behaviors of our worshipers.  Both congregants who appear fully engaged and completely disengaged in worship might or might not be.)

999961The lighting director’s version of the Hippocratic Oath says, “First, do not distract.”  Good worship leaders know that any oohing and aahing that emanates from the congregation needs to be in response to truths about God, not flashy light cues (or anything else, like guitar solos, we do in worship).  At all costs, we want to eschew that which might, in the words of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Professor D.A. Carson in Worship by the Book, tempt us to “worship the worship” in any way.

The Lord be with you as you seek to discern the best strategies for utilizing lighting to enhance your worship services.

Coming next week (Lord willing): children in worship.




About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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